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After a tough week against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens that saw the Denver Broncos drop from 1st in Pass/Rush-D, Total D, Points Against, and Time of Possession, drop anywhere from 2nd-5th in their respective categories. The Broncos manhandled the Jaguars, Giants, and Jets through the first 3 weeks. Then hit the brick wall that was the Ravens who exploited warts across Denver’s roster the less talent-laden teams they faced beforehand simply couldn’t. I believe the latter is where the Steelers lie, and I will break down just how a Teddy or Drew lead team can escape Heinz Field with a victory.
Heinz Field is a notoriously hard place for visitors to play, regardless of the Steelers’ talent on the field. The Steelers are 400-238-9 (including playoffs), a ridiculous .625 winning percentage. But it’s not like they are blowing every opponent out, the average margin of victory is less than 4 points. Pittsburgh also holds the all-time record for winning percentage (.713) and wins (309) against visiting AFC opponents. The Denver Broncos is second on that list in wins (288) and 3rd in win% (.679). There were second in win% before the loss to the Ravens on Sunday, which put Baltimore in the 2nd spot. You may ask, how is he going to spin this into a positive for the Broncos? I’m glad you asked.Embed from Getty Images
As I stated, despite the dominance the Steelers’ all-time home record eludes too, don’t forget that small margin of victory. The Broncos all-time on the road have scored the 3rd most average points (20.2) 1.4 points behind the Patriots. That brings the average margin of victory down to 1.3 points. An easily beatable margin in a game with an oblong spheroid that tends to bounce in funny ways.
The Broncos are only 1 of 2 teams in the AFC with multiple road victories. Yes, they came against the Giants and Jags, but winning on the road in the NFL is incredibly hard. As the team with the most road victories in the AFC all-time is this Steelers franchise as well (both wins and win%) with the only winning record of 214-207-2. The Cowboys are the only other team with a winning record on the road in its own conference. All the records/stats so far are courtesy of StatMuse.
That 20.1 road points average aligns well with the Denver Broncos Offense so far in 2021 which has averaged 20.8 PPG. That’s only 21st in the league, but they face the 3rd worst offense in the league as far as PPG at 16.8 in the Steelers. The Steelers look like they may be getting back 2 of their top 3 targets in Chase Claypool and Juju Smith-Schuster. But the Steelers have the worst rushing offense (55.5 YPG/32nd), which looks at a one-dimensional game as Denver D is 5th against the run at 70 YPG. The Broncos D is also 6th against the pass even after Lamar torched them for 300+ last week. The Steelers O is 19th in passing at 258.3 YPG. All the stats in this paragraph are courtesy of Yahoo! Sports.Embed from Getty Images
The biggest thing going for Denver Offense is the Steelers Defense. The Steelers D is ranked 16th overall giving up 357.75 YPG and only has 1 INT and 5 total sacks through 4 games. That with what I said in this article, that whoever starts at QB will get guards Dalton Risner and Graham Glasnow back to improve their protection against a one-dimensional pass rush. Outside of T.J. Watt, no one really scares you. This should mean a relatively clean pocket for a QB to work out of, especially if Shurmur gets out his own way and utilizes the 2/3-TE sets that were so successful in their 3-0 start to the season.
I also do not see the Denver Broncos carrying over a misguided Cover-Zero game plan they used defensively last week. I see Denver getting back to the suffocating defense they played the first 3 weeks against another bad offense with a statue at QB. Von Miller and Co. should feast in this game. As well as the Denver running game that should be leaned on heavily regardless of the QB under center.Embed from Getty Images
Speaking of QB’s, up until Friday afternoon, this looked like Drew Lock’s first start of the year. But after Teddy practiced fully Friday after being cleared by an independent specialist earlier in the day. This worries me not as a person that wants to see Lock play. But schematically, as Drew has taken all the reps with the 1’s this week. I know Teddy was in the building and viewed practices.
But that is not the same as actually taking the reps. Then after no practice reps with the starters while at home is a stretch. Going into a hostile environment like Heinz Field is a completely different animal. This is the edge a team in desperation like the Steelers needs. This was also a serious concussion that caused Teddy to have involuntary body movements. No concussion is “small” or “little”, but this one looked nasty. Coming back in 6 days doesn’t sound like you are putting player safety first Vic.
So in summary, regardless of the QB, if the Broncos can run the rock, expand the 2/3-TE sets, and go back to the defense that dominated the first three weeks, they can win. But if they play a less than 100% Teddy, run the offense out of 3 wide sets, and continue the communication issues on the defensive back end from last week, they will lose. This is one of the closest matchups on paper in the NFL this week. But I do believe the Broncos defense will be the deciding factor in a hard fought game.Embed from Getty Images
Denver 20-Pittsburgh 13
The Denver Broncos were on top of the world and AFC West after a 3-0 start. They had a 2-game lead on Kansas City and were one of 3 undefeated teams with the Raiders and Arizona Cardinals. They were tied with the Raiders for the division lead. By the end of the day, Arizona was the lone undefeated team in the league and the Broncos and Raiders had to make room for the Chargers at the top of the division where all three are tied at 3-1.
So how exactly was Lamar Jackson and company able to dismantle the top-ranked pass-D in the league to the tune of 316 yards on 22/37 passing with 1 TD and 0 INT’s? Blown coverages and a game plan that left the Broncos’ defense vulnerable. Vic Fangio was determined to not let Lamar beat them with his legs. And he accomplished this as Lamar only had 28 yards rushing on 7 attempts. And outside of a controversial last play would have snapped the Raven’s record streak of at least 100 yards rushing, 43 straight games now, tying the 70’s era Steel Curtain Steelers. But as mentioned above, Lamar was able to beat the Cover Zero that Fangio ran almost the entire game. He got only his second 300-yard passing game of his entire career in the process.Embed from Getty Images
That Cover Zero was a serious miscalculation, it is not what Fangio’s defense is built for. He runs a “match-zone”, which essentially means his D begins as a zone, but once an offensive player crosses into the defender’s “zone” they “match-up” or go to man coverage on that player, until they leave their “zone”. That player is then passed off to the next defender and their “zone”. This is why communication and a top-tier coverage linebacker are much more necessary in Fangio’s scheme than other zone concepts.
This means he runs a lot of Cover 2, or Tampa 2 as many know it. That means two safeties play deep to essentially remove the deep-ball from the equation. Well, now you have defenders playing a scheme they don’t practice outside of a few plays here and there. And no help over the top if someone misses their man-to-man assignment, that again, they don’t practice. This killed the Broncos on 5 huge plays. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s insane 49-yard full-layout TD. James Proche’s 32-yarder with no defender within 20-yards that ended up getting them a field goal. Mark Andrews’ 24-yard rumble across the middle of the field that precursed a Latavius Murray 11-yard TD jaunt. And Devin Duvernay’s 17-yard catch that led to the field goal that put the Ravens up by 13 in the early 4th-quarter.Embed from Getty Images
Now it wasn’t all bad for the defense, like I said, they stuffed the run all game and sacked Lamar 3 times, including 2 by breakout rookie Caden Sterns. Those are the first 2 sacks of Sterns’ career again, who was all over the field. He also had 3 solo tackles and 1 pass defense that he turned himself into a missile, covered 15-yards and jarred the ball out of Sammy Watkins’ hands before he could secure a prayer thrown by Lamar Jackson. This play saved an almost 30+ yard miracle catch and lead to the Ravens punting instead of at least another 3-points from Justin Tucker.
We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention Von Miller continuing his season-beginning sack streak with a half-sack of Lamar late. He also added 5 total tackles and 1 TFL to go with that half-sack. Showing yet again, he is back, healthy, and hungry. There is only one award Miller hasn’t won, Defensive Player of the Year, he continues like this, it could be his year. That is if the Broncos can continue to win.
The Bronco’s chances took a big hit, literally and figuratively, just before the half. When Teddy Bridgewater was knocked so senseless he lost feeling in his hands. This is not something that has been confirmed, but go back and watch Teddy’s hands on the final drive before the half. Those are not normal hand movements by a human that is totally “there” mentally. They look almost involuntary and a bit scary. You can see the hit at the very beginning of this video. We can debate “helmet to helmet” non-calls all you want. Doesn’t change anything.
The Broncos ended the day down 8 starters on both sides of the ball. So in one game, Denver got all of 2020 smacked right across their forehead. Quarterback injuries/turmoil, WR injuries (down 3 receivers now), O-line inconsistency with pass blocking, and a flash of pre-2020 Garrett Bolles with his first holding penalty of the year wiping out a crucial 3rd down Drew Lock had converted on an insane scramble drill.Embed from Getty Images
Speaking of Drew Lock, yes, he got his first action in over a month when he played the final preseason game against the L.A. Rams. After a month of pretending to be other QB’s with the practice squad, he was thrust into an impossible situation. After averaging over 6.5 YPC in the first quarter, Pat Shurmur completely abandoned the run despite it being a one-score game until the final play of the first half.
Then when his young backup QB, that spent the week pretending to be Lamar Jackson, called 4 run plays, and 21 pass plays in the second half. Again, it was only a 10-point game until the 4th-quarter. I got a lot of hate on Twitter and was accused of being a Drew Lock Stan by Teddy Stans on Twitter. But as I said there, here, and everywhere. Check my receipts, I do not know if Drew Lock is “the guy”, but I stand pat, and feel vindicated, in this stance after Sunday. That Drew’s upside is much greater than Teddy’s.
This shows with how the Ravens’ D changed after Drew’s first 3rd-down conversion where he put a frozen rope on Noah Fant in a window Teddy hasn’t been able to hit since college. The Ravens immediately backed up and went from their own Cover Zero due to no fear of Teddy’s arm, too much more Cover 2 to make sure they took away the deep part of the field. The mere presence of Lock on the field forced a defense to change their game plan mid-drive. Here are a few Tweets I put out to counteract the narratives so many want to be true to vindicate their takes all off-season that Teddy is the better option. Not the scared money pick we here at the #TAI42Fam believe it was and is.
If not for a late and meaningless interception in the end zone with 3 seconds left on the clock and 3rd-1 from the 3 where Courtland Sutton gave almost no effort to go up and fight for. Drew would have destroyed Teddy’s first-half line as you can see them below courtesy of Yahoo! Sports:
And again, this was with Drew getting zero snaps with the 1’s since Teddy was named the starter before the Broncos’ final preseason game. Many jumped on his “inaccuracies” without mentioning he had a better comp% than Teddy by over double-digit points. Or that he almost doubled him up in yardage hitting throws Teddy just simply can’t make.
They also want to talk about his interception like it wasn’t essentially the last play of the game. And he gave his best red-zone threat a chance in one-on-one coverage to high-point it, but instead Courtland Sutton back-pedaled and allowed Anthony Averett to prove he wanted it more. As he jumped in front of Court and hauled in the meaningless interception with 3 seconds left on the clock. And if he didn’t, none of you would have the “coaches feud” none of you knew you wanted. I also would like to point out I called this happening in my first article of the year.
Now that we are on to better vibes, let’s talk about this run:
That. Was. INSANE! Pookie said you owe HIM! Javonte Williams needs a new nickname because he does not care these men have families! Maybe “The Reaper”? He’s straight snatching souls out there. That was a Deebo move! Poor Marlon Humphrey was drug 19 yards like he was Javonte’s backpack. What chain? And no “Lil’ Pinball” is NOT good enough.
There is nothing “Lil” about the 5’10” 220 lb. Javonte Williams. He is full-grown. And I approve this message:
I know that Melvin Gordon looks like his 2018 self again, on a contract year. But Javonte has proven through 3 weeks, despite a goal-line fumble last week, he is the future of the Denver Broncos rushing attack. And what a one it will be, if Shurmur gets out of its way. The Broncos’ run-blocking was outstanding with rookie Quinn Meinerz and 2nd-year guard Netane Muti playing instead of starters Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow who were out with injury. The pass-blocking was abysmal, as Muti and Meinerz got bullied by the Ravens’ interior pass-rush. Giving up 5 sacks on the game (Ravens had 5 sacks in the first 3 games combined).
This coupled with Shurmur deciding the success in their 2 and 3-TE sets the first 3 weeks meant nothing. Since he went 3-wide for the vast majority of the offensive snaps. Despite the fact 2 of his top-3, and 3 of his top-5 WR’s were injured by half-time. And the Broncos had three viable TE targets. Not only do 2 and 3-TE sets match your personnel, but they can also be added to the blocking scheme. Especially Eric Saubert, who can ostensibly be a 6th O-lineman. Or using Andrew Beck as the FB-TE hybrid he’s supposed to be on the roster for. Instead, he had Return Specialist Diontae Spencer running routes over the middle of the field. And Kendall Hinton running routes meant for KJ Hamler and Jerry Jeudy.Embed from Getty Images
Between Shurmur hampering the offense by indefensible play-calling and Denver’s Special Teams coverage units continuing to be absolutely abysmal. I continue to doubt the post-season viability of this Broncos squad. I don’t see Fangio straying so far away from his norms again, Lamar is a unique player, and caused a unique challenge Vic over-compensated for. And I see this being an anomaly as long as Surtain doesn’t miss significant time and Darby can return in the next week or 2. So I won’t spend time breaking that down any further. The improved run-D was encouraging, so they can build on that and correct the communication miscues that lead to the 5 broken coverages we discussed earlier.
This week the Broncos will be getting a matchup against another beat-up team in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Who are licking their wounds after three straight losses to the Raiders, Bengals, and Packers. And with Teddy still not practicing as of Wednesday. We will see Drew Lock’s iteration of the 2020 Denver Broncos. The Broncos and Steelers have an extensive injury list. But it looks like Lock will have those starting guards back, who despite their warts, are much better than their respective backups are currently.
So I will most likely be the first and only one to say I believe Lock will surprise and have a strong showing against a reeling Pittsburgh squad who hasn’t won since a stellar opening week win over the surging Buffalo Bills. This is a perfect bounce-back opportunity for not only the Broncos but Lock against a very beatable Steelers team. This is by no means a “lock”, but the most likely outcome. I would love to see Lock against the strong upcoming Broncos schedule. This Sunday, not last, will give a true idea of the improvements Lock made this offseason.